Mark Ludmon reviews the online live broadcast of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk from Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh and Wise Children.
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk
Bristol Old Vic/Kneehigh/Wise Children Online
Kneehigh’s show, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, has been charming audiences for years with its mix of storytelling, physical theatre, music and striking visuals. It beautifully brings to life the deep but complicated love between the expressionist artist Marc Chagall and his wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld, as the turbulence of the early 20th century forces them to leave their home and move around Russia and Europe. It is a wistful celebration of the endurance of love and art at a time when both of these are struggling in the face of a global pandemic that is shuttering arts venues and keeping us apart.
Director Emma Rice has helped to develop the award-winning show since she became involved with Theatre Alibi which originally created it with writer Daniel Jamieson in the 1990s. It blossomed when it followed her to theatre company Kneehigh which has toured it to great acclaim. In collaboration with Rice’s latest theatre company Wise Children, Bristol Old Vic staged the production with two of its previous leads, Marc Antolin and Audrey Brisson, which was streamed live and recorded for watching online from 11 to 18 December.
Watching The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk at the theatre is a mesmerising experience. Directed by Rice with music by Ian Ross, it is visually striking thanks to Sophia Clist’s angular set of timbers and ropes, Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting design and choreography by Rice with Etta Murfitt, with bold colours, shifting shadows and fluid movement bordering on dance. It evokes Chagall’s paintings, including his series of strange floating aerial lovers, but it goes much further than this to create its own visual style. The music, performed live on stage by Ross and cellist James Gow, amplifies the poignant tone of loss and nostalgia, not least in recalling the Yiddish music of the village of Vitebsk in Belarus where Marc and Bella grew up and met.
With two superb pitch-perfect performances by Antolin and Brisson, this is a five-star show, but some of its magic is lost in translation to the screen. Even watching it streamed live from Bristol on a large TV screen in a darkened room, I struggled to be engaged and immersed in it in the same way as seeing it on stage (not helped by the broadcast occasionally pausing). The show has an exhilarating physicality which is hard to communicate on film, although it is a challenge that the production team have done their best to tackle, with excellent sound design by Simon Baker. It is wonderful to be able to see any shows at a time when many of us are stuck at home in lockdown, but this latest online production left me longing for a time when we can return to the theatre to experience the thrill of the live experience.
Available 11 to 18 December 2020 at wisechildrendigital.